The following speech was given by Bryant McBride ’84 during Convocation on September 13, 2019. Read more about Bryant here. See photos of the event here, and video here. Read the address by Class President Nat Markey ’20 here.
Bryant McBride’s career in hockey began on the rinks of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and eventually took him all the way to the offices of the National Hockey League, where as vice president of business development he would serve as the league’s highest-ranking black executive. In that role, he met and hired Willie O’Ree, the league’s first black player, as the NHL’s diversity ambassador, a story recounted in the 2019 documentary Willie, which McBride produced (see the Spring 2019 Bulletin). But before he became a successful entrepreneur, investor, and film producer, Bryant was a young cadet at West Point, where—as he explained to the Williston community gathered at convocation—he would learn a valuable lesson in the most challenging of circumstances. At convocation, Bryant McBride ’84 recalled an incident that continues to inform his life.
On July 24, 1984, during my plebe, or freshman, year at the United States Military Academy at West Point, I found myself on a gurney being wheeled into an ambulance, wondering what had just happened. It was 54 days after I had received my diploma standing right here.
One of the things I vividly remember was the conversation the orderly had with my mom as I was laying there. He said, “Your son has hurt his knee playing soccer. He’s going to have surgery in the morning. He’s fine. And, most importantly, don’t come. There’s nothing you can do to help.” So from the heights of standing here at graduation to that, it was a pretty fast fall.
The good news is, the surgery went well. I played three years of college hockey. I ran a bunch of marathons. It still feels great. What I didn’t realize at that moment, however, was that in the 48 hours after that surgery, I would learn things that would serve as my bedrock, the foundation that I would draw from every day throughout my career, and continue to draw from today.
After the surgery, I was told that I would need about a day and a half to convalesce with my classmates. I was told to be ready to leave the hospital at 5 am the next morning. I was in a cast from my hip down to my ankle, in the middle of a sweltering hot July. The next morning, an orderly picks me up, puts me in a Jeep, and drives me to a part of West Point called The Area. He drops me off, puts me on a curb, and says, “Wait right here. I’ll park and be back in five minutes with a wheelchair.” So I’m sitting there, and as he turns the corner, from the other direction comes a two-star general.
One of the first things you’re taught at West Point is to stand and salute a superior officer.But I just couldn’t lift myself off that curb to get up and salute my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. I see his feet and he’s right there. He lifts me up with his arm, gets this close to my nose, and starts to yell, saying a bunch of really unflattering things about my mom and other things that I won’t repeat. I’m shocked. He asks my superior officer’s name. I tell it to him, and he walks away in disgust.
At West Point, they challenge you constantly. They test you with difficult things to see how you’re going to react. Sometimes you can tell that’s what’s going on, other times you feel like they mean it. This felt like this guy really meant it. He walks away, and the orderly with my wheelchair comes back in four and a half minutes, on time but too late. He puts me in the wheelchair and wheels me up to my fifth-floor room.
I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, crying, literally and figuratively shattered. I look at my clock and it says 6:03 am, so I lift my leg up on the bed and pass out, feeling really sorry for myself.
A couple hours later, I wake up to the sound of activity in The Area below me. It’s Alpha Company coming in from a 15-mile march, covered in mud, carrying rifles, big rucksacks, and all kinds of stuff. They’re being drilled. They’re being yelled at. You’ve got to do these 15 things. You’ve got to clean up, put your rifles away, unpack your gear, and make your beds. That last one was a big deal, because we’d only learned how to make military-style beds the day before I got hurt. It was all still new: the hospital corners, the bouncing quarters, and it was a real challenge. Then Bravo Company comes in, and they get the same orders. Then Charlie Company, and the same thing.
I’m in Delta Company, and now my window becomes a literal window of opportunity. I experienced for the first time in my life what I’ll call signal. It’s that recognition that you can do something that is mission critical, that’s really important, and that will make things better.
What I realized at that moment—even though I’m in a cast, I’m dizzy, I’m fatigued, I haven’t eaten—is that I could make my 11 squad mates’ beds. I had no idea if it was significant. I had no idea if it mattered at all. But I figured I had about 35 minutes, so I quickly hobble over and make my bed. It takes about ten minutes. The next one goes a little faster. The big challenge is not sweating on the beds, because I’m soaking wet. So I improvise. I wrap myself in towels. I look like the Michelin man. I hobble around, and I make all the beds.
My classmates come in, and it’s like Christmas. The beds are made. The directive was you have to be back down in 18 minutes—basically an impossible task. We get down there in 17 minutes. We’re standing at attention, but nobody else is there. Our superior officers aren’t there. They eventually look down and see that we’re there. They come out, look at us, and start firing questions. At West Point, you’re allowed to say just four things your entire freshman year: “Yes sir.” “No sir.” “Sir, I do not understand.” And “Sir, there is no excuse.” That’s it.
So they start firing questions, and everything is confusion. “No ma’am.” “Yes ma’am.” “Ma’am, I do not understand.” I’m just standing there. Finally they say to the cadet next to me, “Jefferson, you can be out of decorum for the next ten seconds. Tell us what happened.”
And he says, “Sir, McBride made the beds.”
And I see big smile come across the face of my commanding officer.
Forty-eight hours later we find out that we’ve been named the Best New Squad in what’s called Beast Barracks. I’m named Best New Cadet. We are the only squad out of 64 in that exercise to get down there in under 18 minutes. It’s the first time it’s been done in 20 years. They bring us out, and they pin stuff on us. They asked me to come up to get my award, and I walk up, and it’s the same general—the same guy that yelled at me and said bad things about my mom.
As he’s pinning this award on me, he leans in and he says something I’ll never forget. He says, “McBride, I bet you thought I was crazy, didn’t you?”
I said, “No, sir.”
(I did think he was crazy, and I thought he was really mean, too, but I couldn’t say that. I wasn’t allowed.)
So he says, “I am a little bit crazy, but” —and I’ll never forget the names he used— “so was Patton, so was Muhammad Ali, so was MLK, and so was Gandhi. I hear that you’ve discovered a little bit of your crazy, that ability to stretch, to extend yourself when you didn’t think you could. Good for you. Now go build teams and teach them how to do the same thing. That’s your job now.”
From knocking me down, he built me up, and his message has stayed with me: the importance of being a little bit crazy, of stretching yourself to extend yourself. The importance of doing that one thing that may seem insignificant at the time, but turns out to be important.
This year as you’re walking around this campus, playing games, acting, doing all kinds of other cool stuff, there’s going to be an inflection point, a moment that matters more than any other, that makes the difference. Find your crazy. Help a person who you’re not sure needs it with some seemingly insignificant thing. It may be what makes a difference. It may turn out to be that compliment about his shoes.
I am incredibly blessed and lucky to be part of this community that is Williston. By doing this, you can raise this community to even greater heights. Every day here is an incredible gift. Enjoy.